Lessons CEOs could learn from my mother, aged 90 today

My Mum is 90 today. She was born on September 22nd 1930. The Irish Times that day reported widespread gales, a tramcar accident in Dublin and the activities of a man called Hitler.

Mum was nine at the outbreak of World War II, a teenager at a boarding school in the forties, married in the early fifties and had seven children by the early sixties of which I was the sixth. 

She ran two small businesses in her lifetime. Her husband, our father, died over 34 years ago. Her daughter, our sister, died aged 57. She lived a full life against a backdrop of global and local socio-economic change the pace of which was unprecedented.

As soon as I came of age, and over the years since, I noticed one consistent pattern in her behaviour:

“Mind-ful-ness”

On one telephone call during the depths of lockdown, which she endured alone, I asked Mum how she was coping. I use “mind-ful-ness”, she said. Where did you hear about mindfulness, Mum, I asked. On the radio she said, “But I realise I’ve been using mind-ful-ness all my life.” She mouths the word as if it’s a made-up word. 

How do you do mindfulness, Mum, I asked. “Well, I concentrate completely on what I’m doing at the time I’m doing it.” she said, matter-of-factly. 

She has a wise saying for every situation and which saying she repeats as if spoken for the first time. Her mindfulness wise saying is this:

 “There’s only now and now is all there is”. 

I have read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle umpteen times and still struggle with “staying in the now”. Not so with Mum. It’s as if she were born with a “now” setting as standard. 

This habit extends into how she lives the minutiae of her life. She never puts anything down; she puts it away. She rarely, if ever, procrastinates. For example, she would preach to us the importance of writing thank-you notes immediately. “Get out your pen” she would say ” and write that thank you letter today”. 

I have a memory of her balancing her cheque book using, as was done back in the day, her cheque book stubs and not on an app, but with her Sheafer fountain pen, which like all her possessions – were few but of the highest quality and which she minded carefully. 

She always knew where she stood with money; she understood the importance of cash flow management in her businesses and how difficult it can be in hard times to manage those cashflows. She was very supportive of me in my business. I enjoyed our conversations about business because she knew what’s it’s like to juggle the peaks and troughs.

But her mindfulness is not just about the serious aspects of life. She loves life and at 90 is in great health and sharp as a tack. She is up to date on all matters political; loves music and can quote poetry and Shakespeare at length. If you say for example “To be or not to be, that is the question” she will quote the full speech, whether you want to hear it or not. 

Her favourite poem is The Old Woman of the Roads by Padraig Colum with its evocative lines and cadences “O! To have a little house…/To have a clock with weights and chains…/I could be quiet there at night…/Beside the fire…/And loth to leave/the ticking cock and shining delph…”.

On The Street Where You Live from My Fair Lady is her favourite song and she and Dad could dance to Strictly Come Dancing standards at a time when everyone could dance at that level.

“Funerals…” she would say, and after a long pause to check out if you were listening, and in a tone that suggested this was the first time she uttered those words, instead of the millionth, “…are for the living.” She’s not wrong.

“Neither a lender nor a borrower be”, she would say, endlessly. Enough said. 

But there is one saying that will always stick in my mind and which almost goes against the mores of her time when people didn’t necessarily speak openly about their emotions – the word love was not as ubiquitous as it is now – and it’s this:

“From the moment they open their eyes until the moment you close yours, you worry about them”. “Them” refers to her children.  

CEOs reading this, especially those with little knowledge of Irish history, might bear in mind that September 1930 was only nine years after Ireland became independent, the fight for which involved many women, and that Ireland isn’t even yet one hundred years a nation. It was against this background that she lived her 90 years. 

The development of the nascent Irish state in “getting up off its knees” relied heavily on the sacrifices of women like my mother and father to educate their children. Check out the boardrooms of many organisations in the UK and around the world today, and you will find many Irish men and women (less of the latter than should have been) whose characters were forged in the crucible of 60s & 70s Ireland. 

That’s not to say it was a time to be sentimentalised, nor am I saying my mother is a paragon of virtue different from the rest of us. Indeed there were times in my teens and twenties when I struggled to forgive her for not being perfect.

But I changed my tune when I had two children of my own to help raise – not seven. It ain’t easy. They don’t come with instructions. When I’m ninety, I hope mine are kind and forgiving of me. 

  • So, CEOs, there’s only now and now is all there is. What will you do with your now?

Mum – Happy 90th! You did your best, in “the now”. What more can one ask?

Lots of love,

Ciarán

6 thoughts on “Lessons CEOs could learn from my mother, aged 90 today

  1. Thanks and happy birthday to your ma. Nice to read some good news. Ps community/belief philosophy /church make for a long life- which must be tough for those isolated.

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